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Google’s New Feature: “Trap My Contacts Now”

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Want to import your Gmail address book into Facebook? Google (s goog) is happy to let you do that (although it doesn’t want to make it easy). But first, it wants you to be aware of what you’re doing — namely, that you are importing them into a place where you will never be able to get them back out again. Hence, the new message that greets anyone trying to use this feature, which has the sarcastic title: “Trap my contacts now.” In the serve-and-volley that has been going on between the two web giants over data portability in the past week, call this one a drop shot.

The Google message asks users: “Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out?” and notes that the site the user was redirected from (Facebook’s name is never mentioned) “doesn’t allow you to re-export your data to other services, essentially locking up your contact data about your friends.” Google says it “strongly disagrees” with this kind of data protectionism, but is willing to let users export their information because it believes they should control what happens to it. The notice also contains a checkbox that allows a user to “register a complaint over data protectionism,” although it’s not clear what exactly that does.

(click for larger version)

Just to recap what has been going on for the past few days, Google changed the terms of its contacts API, which third-party developers use to automatically import email address books from Gmail, so that users can find their friends on a network or service. The change required that anyone making use of this feature also allow users to export their data, including email addresses — and this was a clear shot at Facebook, which doesn’t allow this (although you can download names, wall posts, photos, etc.) Facebook responded by linking directly to Google’s download feature, which is why the new warning appears.

In the only official comment that has emerged from Facebook, platform engineer Mike Vernal suggested that Google is being hypocritical about data portability, and is only concerned about it because Facebook is more popular and is a competitive threat. According to Vernal, allowing users to export email addresses is something Google should be required to do, but not something Facebook should have to do — because users on Facebook control their own contact info, but not their friends.

As several sites have noted, however, Facebook happily allows users to bulk export the contact information for all their friends from the social network to partners such as Microsoft (s msft) and Yahoo (s yhoo), but not to Google. So it appears that there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around — and even more tangible signs that Google and Facebook are in the middle of a social war, and your contact information is one of the main weapons.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar

14 Responses to “Google’s New Feature: “Trap My Contacts Now””

  1. Everything Google does in the name of Open Source or Data Portability or whatever, it’s all for their own business benefits. C’mon guys google doesn’t care how you manage ur data or whether you have the control on ur data or not…all they want is to “make world’s information easily accessible” and this includes your social graph and all which are ultimately going to pay them via ads.
    No one here (MSFT/YHOO/GOOG/FB) is doing anything for you.

    At least for now i feel safe that only FB has my social graph info…I agree that Yahoo and MSFT also do but they are like drops in the ocean…Google is THE 800 pound gorilla from whom i would like to keep the data away otherwise it’s gonna spread it everywhere on the web

    • Google may not care too much but I think FB cares even less judging by their decision to reset and default all privacy settings to be “least secure” and then expecting users to log in to their profile to manage it.

      Instead of blindly trustin FB, we should capitalize on this opportunity to ensure that our data remains “ours” and in our control and not simply side with FB cause it may not be as big as google, cause soon, if this trend continues, FB could be as big as google, and you will have your data locked in, and they could simply say that you were well aware of their policies of locking in data and still gave them all your info.

    • I don’t get where you’re coming from at all. “i would like to keep the data away [from Google] otherwise it’s gonna spread it everywhere on the web”.

      Similarly, Cyndy says “With Google, who knows where it will end up. For all I know, my whole life will end up on an interactive billboard of theirs one of these days.”

      Since when has Google spread contact data everywhere on the web? Can you name a single instance where this has happened, or point to anything in Google’s privacy policies that allow this?

      Google’s business model is not based on handing out individuals’ personal information. It’s based on showing users advertising, that it algorithmically determines is relevant to that user. It doesn’t make a cent out of selling personal data.

  2. I don’t think I buy Google’s side on this one.

    Your Facebook list of friends exists within the confines of Facebook, where there are certain norms. For example, if you have a Facebook friend you met in person, but haven’t exchanged phone numbers with, you typically communicate with that person over Facebook. A quick flip through my Facebook friends list on iPhone shows phone numbers for several people that I have on my friends list that I probably wouldn’t call out of the blue. The same could be said for e-mail addresses.

    Now you could blame the people on my friends lists for not being more protective of their phone numbers and e-mail addresses. But the fact of the matter is Facebook lulls these members into this sense of security, which helps it attract more members and retain the members it already has. If I were able to export those phone numbers and e-mail addresses to a third party easily, what is to stop that third party from sending that information to advertisers or whatever else? My friends’ e-mail address, phone numbers, likes, etc aren’t “my” data; they are a feature of the service that keeps me going back to the site or app.

    The fact is that the only thing you really control in Facebook is your connection to other people, to companies, whatever. It gives you a way to contact those entities, but it isn’t a true contact data storage system for all of your contants and isn’t designed to be such.

    • That’s a fair point, Adelphos — having all of that information and the various connections between people is a bit different than a straightforward email contact list. But at the same time, couldn’t Facebook figure out a way to let your friends opt in to you exporting their info? It shouldn’t be that hard.

  3. The one thing you have to admire is how well Facebook sticks to their founding attitude towards the user, summed up in just two words.

    No matter how you slice it, Google (or anyone comparably formidable, for that matter) vs. Facebook is good for Social Media and good for the consumer.

  4. Cyndy Aleo

    It’s hard to say who’s the most disingenuous in this one. Should Facebook let me have my contact list? Absolutely. But do I want Google to have it? Please.

    This has nothing to do with data portability and everything to do with where the money can be mined. I have Facebook portioned up like a neat little pie, but a lot of my personal social graph is on there, and that’s stuff I’ve kept out of Google’s hands. If Facebook hands over my entire social graph, they have everything. Do I like Facebook having it? No, because I know they have a use for it. However, at least I know it’s relatively walled up in there. With Google, who knows where it will end up. For all I know, my whole life will end up on an interactive billboard of theirs one of these days.

    Google wants my info for advertisers. So does Facebook. Microsoft and Yahoo got in bed with them, but Google wants it all. Who’s the bad guy? All of them. Who’s going to lose? We are: the users.

    • Actually Cyndy-

      You do not have everything walled up, because MSFT and YHOO now have rights to those same contacts that you think are walled up. Now is that fair?

      Google wants your info, with YOUR permission…. right now they can not have it with or with your permission. YHOO and MSFT can have it with your permission, frankly for the fact that they paid FB for the rights to. Which means it is not your data, but FB’s and they choose who you can give it to, not you.

    • I sympathize with your frustration, Cyndy — and I agree that both would like to have your content for their own purposes. But at least Google is letting you choose when (or if) to upload and/or download those contacts, and what to do with them after you do that. Facebook doesn’t give you that choice.

  5. Good for Google.

    All too often I feel people do not fully understand what they are getting them selves, and their contacts, into when signing up for Facebook.

    Granted, I would rather not see a Google VS Facebook battle, but I fear Google is the only one with the power to force Facebook to take a real look at their privacy issues, and with any luck actually address them. God knows we can not count on Microsoft to play the morally correct role in all of this.